Annapurna Devi passes away: A glimpse into the mind of the elusive Indian classical music legend

Editor's note: Annapurna Devi — a legend in Indian classical music — passed away aged 91, in Mumbai, on 13 October 2018. Her father and guru was the maestro Baba Allauddin Khan, her brother, the renowned sitar player Ali Akbar Khan. Pt Ravi Shankar (her father's disciple) was her first husband. Amid such greats, Annapurna Devi herself was a surbahar virtuoso, and counted among her students, Aashish Khan (sarod), Amit Bhattacharya (sarod), Bahadur Khan (sarod), Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia (sansuri) and Nikhil Banerjee (sitar), among others. Despite so many of the details of her life being known, Annapurna Devi was also among the most mysterious figures in the world of Indian art — perhaps because of the near-reclusive life she led.

Swapan Kumar Bondyopadhyay's Annapurna Devi — An Unheard Melody (published by Roli Books) provides a glimpse into the life and persona of the elusive classical music legend. This excerpt has been republished with due permission from Roli Books.

***

Between 1994 and 2003, I met Annapurna Devi almost every year in her flat. I spoke to her at length on various issues. These meetings were far from formal interviews. I had met her to explain the enigma she is. With her tremendous power of knowing the human mind, she was able to perceive (this). Her magnanimity and love turned the meetings — over the years — into informal afternoon tête-à-têtes. I also had the rare privilege of meeting her students. She even permitted me to sit through one of her teaching sessions, where I heard her sing and teach the famous sarod player Basant Kabra.

The following text is a composite of several interviews with Annapurna Devi during this period.

***

‘What is so special in your teaching?’ I asked her.

‘I do not know. But I am teaching so that men get some joy and peace of mind. I taught Hariprasad [Chaurasia] in such a way. I taught him things that the flute was not fit to play. He said, “Maji, bansuri me aisa ho nahi sakta ... all these things are not possible on the flute.” I said, “Jaroor hoga, you can do it.” And he was able to play all the angs played by the other instrumentalists. He has earned a name.’

‘Why do you shun company?’

‘I have found out that it is much more peaceful not to meet people,’ she said. ‘That helps me to do things of my own.’

‘I thought it was some vow on your part. You had been deprived of many-a-thing,’ I said.

‘No, no, that is not the reason. I avoid meeting people because often they have double standards. People who come here and meet me, they say rosy things about me in my presence. But the moment they step out they say just the opposite. I do not like this. It pains me. When I saw this I decided to stay away from people,’ she said, in a matter-of-fact manner.

‘Did you feel scared as you lived all alone in the flat? Often not a soul around for days together?’ I asked.

‘I do not know,’ she said. ‘But sometimes I felt uncomfortable. Once Baba appeared in my dream and taught me a mantra. He was a devotee of Kali and Krishna. Till today I chant that mantra and I am fearless.’

***

(Above left) Annapurna Devi in later years; (top right) her father Ustad Allauddin Khan; (above right) a young Annapurna

(Above left) Annapurna Devi in later years; (top right) her father Ustad Allauddin Khan; (above right) a young Annapurna. Right-hand side images courtesy of Shelley Mazumdar

Usually the sea in Bombay [sic] is calm and innocuous. But on the sixth floor of the building with the sea only a few feet away and especially during the monsoon season, I had a different experience. As I was videographing Rooshiji [Rooshikumar Pandya, Annapurna Devi’s second husband] in his study, I heard the loud and strange wailing of the wind caught in the crevices of the aluminum fittings and the glass windowpanes. A very strange sound. Very vocal. Sound that could fit in the soundtrack of any popular horror serial on the TV. It was eight o’clock in the evening and I was scared — God knows how I would have felt had I heard it in the dead of the night, when all alone. When I entered the drawing room, I heard the same wailing sound — though of a lesser intensity.

‘You may not be scared. But that (sound) could have easily killed me!’ I said.

She laughed and said, ‘In Maihar, we heard such howling wind even in the day time. That was during the height of summer. It was called the loo. And Baba was so mischievous that whenever he was not happy or satisfied with a student, he would try to scare him away by telling him that “spirits” lived in the house — referring to the sound of the wind.’

Now as I was talking to her, she looked at Shukla, my wife, and laughed and said, ‘Who put this bad idea (of writing on me) in his head? You have so many things to do. You must look after your family, your son. Why are you wasting your time and money? Why are your taking all this pain for me?’

‘You are a great artist and I want to do this,’ I mumbled.

‘Don’t call me an artist. I am not that great.’

I did not attach importance to this statement, because I knew it was a strategy to divert my attention. I wanted to stay focused.

‘People complain of your temper, what about that?’ I asked.

‘There was much false propaganda against me. Panditji [Pt Ravi Shankar, her first husband] always tried this. He scared people away from me. He circulated the story that I am very ill-tempered, and whenever people come to meet me, I just run after them to beat them. Once Kishan Maharaj came along with Siddeshwari Devi and she said something remarkable. When she came in, I offered my namaskar with folded hands and said, “I am so fortunate I could meet you.” Instead of greeting me, she turned to Kishan Maharaj and said, “Kahan usne mujhe to gali nehi diya (how strange she has not railed at me).” I knew why she said that. She again said, “Ravijine aisa bola tha, par dekha nehi (Ravi Shankar said this, but I do not see anything).” Kishan Maharaj was constantly signalling Siddeshwari Devi, but she could not comprehend. You know there are some people who are straightforward and open. So you must also have heard rubbish things like this.’

***

Annapurna’s surbahar lay in the inner room where we sat and talked. ‘A surbahar that belongs to history,’ I thought. I looked at the old leather case, replete with memories.

‘Music has power,’ Annapurna said.

She knew I was a nonbeliever so she stressed on every syllable and reiterated, ‘Music has real power. It can bring the rains. It can put trees on fire. It can make cows give more milk.’

She stopped for a while and repeated, ‘I am confident of this. Music definitely has the power. If you have the power of the mind, if you can get your mind tuned peacefully to the eternal, you can do it. But we do not have the power, the sadhana, in our music.’

‘What is she suggesting?’ I thought. ‘Does she mean that she has the power and can work miracles as she plays alone at night? Is it at all worth a belief? Should a modern skeptic believe in all this?’

‘When I play at night once in a while I smell the sweetest seasonal flowers in this very room. The smell comes and envelops me from nowhere. Once when I was playing, I saw the half-hidden face of a sweet woman draped in a white sari. She appeared again and again but not for once could I see her full face,’ Annapurna continued, sensing that I was unconvinced.

There were some plants in the room. In a small pot, there was a money plant shrub. Outside on the balcony, overlooking the sea, there were a few large plants in earthen pots. I had seen Rooshi watering them in the evening. I looked at them again and Shukla remarked, ‘Now look at the colour of these plants. I have never seen such green outside.’

Annapurna Devi with first husband Ravi Shankar; (top right) with their son Shubho

Annapurna Devi with first husband Ravi Shankar; (top right) with their son Subho

Annapurna said, ‘Are you sure? What is so special about it, this greenness?’

Shukla said, ‘Every night the plants listen to you. May be that is why they have this out-of-the world greenness.’

Annapurna remained silent. It seemed her silence underlined her consent.

I looked at the plants again. They really did have a green hue I have not seen in the plants outside, so it seemed to me. ‘Maybe because of this dim light here,’ I thought. In the entire house there is not a single fluorescent lamp.

Annapurna said, ‘Are you sure they have some special greenness? Are you sure? But I have not known how the plants look like in the outside world for quite some time now. I do not know their real colour.’

‘I shall show you some when I visit you again. Maybe next year. I shall bring some fresh leaves for you to make you understand the difference in colour,’ Shukla said.

She nodded.

I did not know what it all meant. I could neither believe nor disbelieve. The sea breeze made hungry, and the howling sounds continued from the gaps in the aluminum-framed glass shutters of the window.

May be only the sea knew the truth because, along with her husband Rooshi, it is only the sea that listens to Annapurna Devi’s music.

***

I remember the day when I first met her. As I stepped out of the lift on the sixth floor of Akash Ganga Apartments I saw the plastic notice board bearing her instructions about ringing the bell: how many times and on which days. It had become a legendary point of reference for her interviewers. I rang the bell. The black plastic plate bearing the instructions stared me in the face. The door, however, opened almost immediately with a smiling Rooshikumar welcoming me in. I was ushered into his room on the right.

It was an ordinary room with a plain couch and a centre table. A reddish carpet was spread on the floor. Just near the entrance sat Annapurna on a low stool. She wore a white cotton sari with a little touch of mauve on the pleat and a plain white blouse. All very ordinary. She had a plastic bangle and an iron bangle wrapped in gold, one generally worn by married Bengali women on the right hand. A thick layer of vermillion shone prominently in the parting of her hair. It seemed the eyebrows were touched up with a black pencil and looked thick and elongated. A small knot of hair was drawn straight backwards. The hair was moist, as if she had just taken her bath.

(Above left) Rooshikumar Pandya, image courtesy Rooshikumar Pandya, copyright KG Somsekhar; (top right) Pt Ravi Shankar with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan; (above right) Annapurna with father Ustad Allaudin Khan

(Above left) Rooshikumar Pandya, image courtesy Rooshikumar Pandya, copyright KG Somsehar; (top right) Pt Ravi Shankar with Usta Ali Akbar Khan, image courtesy Vaidu Sanyal; (above right) Annapurna with father Ustad Allaudin Khan

For a fraction of a second I was totally confused. Where is that grand, famous lady? As I moved forward to pay my respects, she said, ‘Why did you take all this trouble to meet me... coming all the way from Calcutta? And Rooshi said you came by plane, as the train tickets were not confirmed. This is foolish.’ I said nothing, and looked around.

It was Guru Purnima day and the room was full of her students. On the couch sat Shamim Ahmed Khan, the veteran sitar player. On the floor sat Saswati Ghose, her disciple. By her side sat Sudhir Phadke, the sitarist. His wife and two daughters accompanied him. The younger one was about three or four years old. In childish glee she began to dance on the carpet. Annapurna burst out laughing and said, ‘Sudhir, your daughter will be a great dancer in time, I bet. Her movements are very rhythmical.’ When Sudhir’s wife tried to restrain the child, Annapurna said, ‘No. Never. Let her do whatever she likes.’ Then she looked at Sudhir and asked, ‘The elder one plays the sitar, doesn’t she?’ Sudhir said, ‘Yes she is doing the paltas.’ Sudhir’s wife said, ‘Ma, she has cut her fingers and cries in pain.’

Annapurna called the little girl by her side, inspected the sitar cut on the middle and index fingers and said softly, ‘Don’t be afraid. It might pain you in the beginning. But it goes with time. If it hurts too much, apply some mehendi, the pain will become less.’ Then she asked Sudhir, ‘And what about your riyaz? Is everything okay? Did you practise and edit that alap portion?’

I looked around the room. Annapurna sat facing south. Just behind her on the shelf was the bust of her father Baba Allauddin Khan crafted by the famous sculptor Sarbari Roychoudhury. A
clay mask of Mother Durga hung from the wall. On the table was the picture of her favourite dog. On the right hand side was another shelf. It contained a few artistic icons and knick-knacks. In one corner of the room lay a new micro-oven with hardly any sign of being in use. There were two big glass windows on the narrow balcony on the western side. A few pots and plants adorned the place. The sea was on the other side of the road. The tame sea of Bombay, sitting quiet like miles of flattened silver plate.

A hundred thousand questions swarmed in my mind, but I was not sure where and how to begin.

Annapurna pointed to Saswati sitting by my side and said, ‘This is Saswati. I never wanted to teach her. But how she clung on to me I do not know. When I did decide to teach her I told her, listen this is the time for riyaz and sadhana ... no children now. She was newly married then, and she kept her word. But after a few years she gave birth to twins... God compensated for her early disappointments,’ she said and laughed. I thought I would meet a cynical hypochondriac. But here was a simple, straightforward, amiable woman before me.

***

When I asked her about her divorce from Ravi Shankar, she just said, ‘One of my well-wishers wanted to make a court case. All nonsense. I did not want to embroil and sully the name of my father in all this. I did not want tantrums. I knew these would tell upon my health. I did not want to be dragged into any controversy whatsoever. I did not want scandals to be spread about him. Panditji is a great artist.’

I also asked her why in 1982 she did not respond to Ravi Shankar’s proposal to bridge the breach in their relationship positively. ‘He wanted to come back after I had sacrificed ... shunned everything. He asked me to paint the flat. But I said, there are so many posh hotels for you. I did everything for my father and my son. I had lived for them. Now they are not with me. And I was not willing to do anything for anybody now.’

I was curious to know if she stood as an obstacle to Ravi’s phenomenal rise as a sitarist. So I said, ‘Some say you put a spanner in Ravi’s ventures to go out of the country. You threw tantrums.’

‘I did not want him to go, because that was still too early for him to venture outside. I wanted him to stay back and learn for a few more years. What’s wrong in that?’ she asked calmly.

I also wanted to know of her relations with Subho’s wife and his children. ‘Unfortunately, I stay far away. I am not in direct touch with them. But I used to help them. I sent them some money out of the sale proceeds of the land in Maihar. They used to write to me. But again, for some unknown reason, all that stopped,’ she said.


Updated Date: Oct 16, 2018 13:08 PM

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